I must confess a recent self-discovery: when it comes to my vision for the church, I am progressive. And before you have the chance to get through security with all that baggage, let me tell you I am not talking about politics or social issues.
I mean this one simple thing: I don’t believe the Church is supposed to be “getting back” to anything.
Specifically, my vision for the Church doesn’t include “getting back” to the Garden of Eden, the “Church in Acts 2,” or even the conservative “Christian” America of the 1950s. I do not find Paul hoping that his churches in Ephesus or Corinth would just “realize the vision of the early church in Acts” nor do I think such nostalgia is a healthy view of our calling as Christians.
Specifically, there are three reasons I am progressive. But they are intimately related to one another. Here they are, including what I think are practical implications for how these shape the Christian life:
First, a progressive view of church changes our view of what the Bible is meant to be. As N.T. Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer have championed, we have lost the art of improvisation in biblical interpretation. We are not called to be copy-cats of the characters of the Bible. We are called to be our own true selves. And our own true selves do not live in first century Palestine but in suburban America, urban Europe, and the slums of India in the 21st century. As a progressive, I find it wrong-headed to think that the goal of the Church is to “get back” to a first century Palestinian understanding of Church because, well, we are not first century Palestinians. God is big enough to take us into new territory, not just pine for the old country.
Is the Bible irrelevant then? No, it is the God-breathed script of God’s relationship with his people. The exhilarating/terrifying reality, however, is that our part of the script hasn’t been written yet. That’s our job. And we are, in my “progressive” opinion, not doing our best if we just rehearse parts of the script that have already been acted out. We cannot rely solely on the Bible to tell us how to “do church” in 21st century America, we must rely primarily on the Spirit of God as we read the Scriptures anew, in light of our own situatedness and context. And that brings me to point number 2.
Second, a progressive view of Church forces me to trust in the Spirit of God. The “getting back” view of the Bible leaves no room for imagination, only mechanics. There is already a blue print for where we are headed (back to), we just need help getting there. But if the Bible is a springboard for something new, then we must take a leap into unknown space. Instead of thinking that “getting back to the church in Acts 2” will solve the challenges we face, we must instead creatively imagine how we can faithfully live out what it means to the church today. And to do that, we must admit that God didn’t give us a blueprint in the Bible, just a script that we must read, study, memorize, so that our part of the play will be fresh but faithful, new but rooted.
Thirdly, a progressive view of the Church makes us good missionaries. The reality is that we will never get back to the first century church if only because we will never get back to the first century. Good missionaries know that you cannot take your original context and try to bring it into a new context. And so, by trying to force ancient Palestinian culture onto our own I feel we are being poor missionaries. Instead, we must pioneer new meaning between the Scriptures and our ever-changing cultural landscape.
And the main reason I am a progressive is: that’s the story of the Bible. We begin in a Garden but we end in a City. And so, may we be fellow builders as we flesh out this messy thing we call the Church.
What type of church do you envision and why?